- “On the Frontier . . . of Integration and Desegregation”:White Ministers and the 1956 School Desegregation Crisis in Henderson, Kentucky
When the Supreme Court handed down its Brown v. Board of Education decision in May 1954, ruling “separate but equal” unconstitutional in public education, church elites endorsed it wholeheartedly. Each major denomination released its own resolution praising the decision as in line with Christian principles, and the Christian Century, the prominent magazine for mainline Christianity, issued an editorial stating that the denominational “unanimity proves that the source of their conviction is found in the Christian faith itself. . . . One can no longer claim that there is a substantial difference on this matter.”1 Later events proved the Century’s optimistic portrayal unfounded, as many dedicated adherents nationwide took part in massive resistance [End Page 675] campaigns against school integration, believing their faith values at least permitted and perhaps even justified their resistance.2
Such resistance left many white clergy in the South, such as the eight Birmingham moderates whom Martin Luther King Jr. singled out in his famous prison epistle, occupying a thin middle ground between their theological convictions and their practical concerns. Although King had initially hoped that white ministers would “be among our strongest allies,” most “have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained-glass windows,” providing little effective support for the moral struggle of their day.3
The few examples of successful clerical intervention serve as exceptions that prove the rule, demonstrating both the potential for white ministers to make a concrete difference as well as the many fears that explain their retreat behind stained-glass windows. In Henderson, Kentucky, First Presbyterian Church pastor C. Sumpter Logan and Zion Evangelical and Reformed (E&R) Church pastor Theodore A. Braun proved to be effective allies of the school desegregation campaign in the city after a local boycott threatened to shut down the newly desegregated schools. The two organized people behind the scenes and used their public profiles to unabashedly support desegregation, even in the face of segregationist threats. According to an editorial in the Henderson Gleaner and Journal, their “sincere leadership” helped to relax tensions and temper proboycott sentiments. Local desegregationists, in turn, claimed that “if it hadn’t been for the ministerial association, we’d have emptied the schools on the third day.”4 Instead, the school board members held firm in [End Page 676] their commitment to desegregation, eventually receiving a supportive opinion from the state attorney general that gave them the power to prosecute boycotters for encouraging truancy. The efforts of these two ministers help partially explain why desegregation, if not the total integration of the county school district, prevailed.
Logan and Braun’s public stance brought with it considerable obstacles, including threats to their personal safety. Reflecting on his Henderson “baptismal bonfire,” Braun stated that “back then, I never thought that I’d live to be the age I am now. I had the feeling that maybe my life might end with some bullet or something in Henderson.”5 Segregationist voices also challenged the ministers’ authority, contending that their own interpretations of the Bible were equally valid. Yet, the main opposition Logan and Braun faced came from discontented congregation members who voiced their objections, reduced their contributions, or, in some cases, left the church entirely. The backlash against these ministers led both to resign within eighteen months. Although Braun voluntarily left, Logan was ousted from the relatively elite First Presbyterian Church and reassigned to Ogden, Utah.
Although their prophetic convictions ended up having considerable repercussions, both ministers’ faith helped shelter them from despair.6 Braun later reflected:
There was a calmness about being in the midst of the struggle in Henderson, and a danger, because I thought I was on the right side of things, justice issues, and I explained it as being more like in the calm of the middle of the tornado, the quiet there in the center. If you get in the center of justice, then no matter what happens, you have this calmness.7 [End Page 677]
Both the “calm” that bolstered Braun’s confidence and the “tornado” of opposition he faced...